The UN Climate Change Conference or COP26, is underway in Glasgow this week with heads of nations who face the worst impact of climate change being the most vocal about the consequences of global warming. Rising temperatures are resulting in rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions – and island nations like Barbados face serious consequences with the rise in global temperatures. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley told COP26 that for Island nations like hers a 1.5C rise in global temperature, ‘is what we need to survive’, while ‘two degrees is a death sentence’.[i]
Meanwhile, speaking at the opening ceremony The Prince of Wales told world leaders and delegates that a ‘war-like footing’ is necessary to tackle the climate crisis. He said, ‘I know you all carry a heavy burden on your shoulders, and you do not need me to tell you that the eyes and hopes of the world are upon you’. He talked of the need for countries to come together for a ‘global systems levels solution’.[ii] How nations work together to solve the climate conundrum remains to be seen.
Sikh scriptures tell us, ‘Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all’ – thus we are encouraged to respect our environment and care for our planet. We have a responsibility like others to work to combat climate change, and initiatives such as EcoSikh are both important and commendable. Whilst considering COP21 and the global climate crisis, we happened to unearth a BBC Thought for the Day broadcast by our Director Lord Singh from March 1989.
Despite being over thirty years old, it is as relevant today as it was then.
16 March 1989 – TFTD Lord Singh (then Dr Indarjit Singh)
There is a saying in Sikhism that ‘We love the gift but forget the giver’. The words are used in a spiritual context, but they are also true of every-day life.
I’ve long forgotten who it was that gave us a present of a re-chargeable electric toothbrush, some ten or twelve years ago. It was never really suited to the sturdy demands of the Singh family – but it did give rise to a most unusual dream.
The dream started with isolated reports about a strange and deeply upsetting noise. Doctors blamed stress and prescribed tranquilisers. But without success. The complaint became more widespread not only in this country but also abroad, and soon became the subject of major world concern.
An international conference of scientists was called to consider the situation, and, after days of intensive deliberation, came up with a solution – specially designed earmuffs to filter out the offending noise:
It worked at first, but soon people complained that the earmuffs were beginning to lose their protection and that the noise was becoming even more distressing.
In despair, a conference of religious leaders gathered and, after much discussion, concluded that the noise was in some inexplicable way, nature’s reaction to the way in which human-beings were treating each other and destroying the environment in the process. I’ll never know what happened next. At that moment, I woke up to the noise of the toothbrush holder on charge in the bedroom.
This strange dream occurred many years before the current concern over the environment. Today it’s not nature that’s making a noise of protest but people all over the world, alarmed by the potentially lethal gap in the ozone layer, the hazards from excess carbon dioxide and other known forms of pollution, too numerous to mention, as well as others still unknown, undoubtedly lurking around the corner waiting to be discovered. It all adds up to the inescapable fact that the human race is proving far too clever and short-sighted for its own good.
Our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh writes about the controversial Assisted Dying Bill 2021 which will be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow.
The push for legalised assisted dying for the terminally ill is back with a private members’ bill (PMB) introduced by Baroness Meacher. We’ve been here before, with Lord Falconer’s 2013 Assisted Dying Bill, and the 2015 Marris Bill – which was overwhelming defeated by 330 votes to 118 in the Commons. But this issue remains emotionally charged and goes to the heart of medical ethics. It is also true that euphemistic language is often deployed by advocates in framing the narrative – another way of describing ‘assisted dying’, is of course, the grislier ‘assisted suicide’, or ‘assisted killing’. Even euthanasia, which is the act of intentionally ending a life to relieve suffering means ‘good death’. Meacher’s PMB will be debated by more than 140 peers tomorrow, but has it addressed concerns like those highlighted by Lord Tebbit during the passage of Falconer’s Bill, when he said legalising assisted suicide, ‘will be a breeding ground for vultures, individual and corporate. It creates too much financial incentive for the taking of life’?
The Bill states it is designed to, ‘enable adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life; and for connected purposes’. A terminally ill individual having capacity to make the decision and is, ‘reasonably expected to die within six months’, must get the consent of a High Court judge. A witnessed ‘declaration’ is however first to be approved and countersigned by two independent medical practitioners. The doctors must examine the patient (and their medical records) and be satisfied the patient: (i) is terminally ill (ii) has the capacity to make the decision to end their own life; and (iii) has a clear and settled intention to end their own life which has been reached voluntarily, on an informed basis and without coercion or duress. But therein lie the inherent problems with these proposals.
Firstly, the Bill is founded on the premise that it is possible to ascertain the time of death for a terminally ill patient accurately up to six months. How can any doctor possibly know? Could a wrong diagnosis not also be made? Second, it is difficult, if not impossible to be certain if an asset-rich individual who feels, ‘they don’t want to be a burden’, has not been pressurised by relatives (or other ‘vultures’) into deciding to end their life. How to then safeguard the vulnerable at end-of-life? Section 8 of the PMB talks of ‘codes of practice’, but says, ‘The Secretary of State may issue one or more’ – ‘may’ is simply not good enough for what in practice would equate to intentional killing.
Supporters of change like the campaign group Dignity in Dying, argue dying people from Britain are already going overseas to end their lives. They say, ‘The absence of an assisted dying law forces dying people to take drastic measures to control their death’. Statistics, however, show that only 42 people travelled to Dignitas (Switzerland) in 2019, and 24 the year before – the highest annual number since 2002 was 47 in 2016. Given these small numbers, why should a right requested by the few be imposed on the majority in law? Dignity in Dying indicate 84% of the public support a choice in assisted dying for the terminally ill, and in September the British Medical Association (BMA) moved their position from opposition to ‘physician assisted dying’ to neutrality. But despite the polling and the BMA’s shift, which is now on par with the Royal College of Physicians, there remains a groundswell of opposition, not least the voice of Dr Gordon Macdonald, Chief Executive of Care Not Killing.
Macdonald told me, ‘It is disappointing that in the midst of the COVID pandemic, which has seen widespread discrimination against the elderly and disabled people, Baroness Meacher is pushing a dangerous bill that seeks to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill people.’ He went on, ‘Setting aside the considerable issues with the Bill such as the difficulties in securing an accurate diagnosis, the whole thing seems based on a lie which perpetuates a dog whistle message that those with a terminal or chronic condition will die in pain, that current palliative care cannot help them and simply taking a pill will end their lives peacefully.’
Macdonald said in the US State of Oregon, six in ten people ending their lives in 2019 referred to the fear of being a burden on families as a reason. He warns of where things may head if assisted suicide is legalised here, citing the expansion of those qualifying for an assisted death in other jurisdictions. Several countries have legalised assisted dying, including a growing number of states in the US and Australia – a third attempt to legalise assisted dying is afoot in Scotland too. In the Netherlands, assisted death (legalised in 2002) is not limited to those with terminal illness and less than six months to live – but routinely extended to include the disabled, those with chronic non-terminal conditions and those with mental health problems, like depression and dementia – it also extends to children. Were the law to change, there are no guarantees we would not head down a similar and frankly frightening trajectory.
Right To Life UK are the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group. Their spokesperson Catherine Robinson told me all the main disability rights groups in the UK oppose any change to the law – including SCOPE, Disability Rights UK, Not Dead Yet UK and the United Kingdom’s Disabled People’s Council. She said, ‘We are calling on Peers to speak against and oppose Baroness Meacher’s assisted suicide Bill on Friday. The overwhelming majority of doctors who work in end-of-life care continue to oppose assisted suicide, according to the latest BMA survey. They know from experience that what vulnerable people need at the end of their lives is love and support, not offers to accelerate their death.’
Robinson is right. Moreover, if the law were to change, vulnerable people at end-of-life are at risk of interpreting it as, ‘a duty to die’ to alleviate emotional burden, whilst Tebbit’s point on financial incentive remains. Assisted suicide has been debated and rejected in parliament before, it must surely be rejected again.
Hardeep Singh @singhtwo2, journalist and Deputy-Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations
Give the gift of life after your death, please talk to your family. This will give them the certainty that they need to support your decision at a difficult time. Talk about your faith, what the Gurus say.
Organ donation is when a healthy organ is given to someone who needs it. Thousands of lives are saved every year by organ transplants. For many patients in need of a transplant the best match will come from a donor from the same ethnic background. Kidney donors and recipients are matched by blood group and tissue type, and people from the same ethnic background are more likely to have matching blood groups and tissues. For other organs there is a need to match blood groups, but less of, or no requirement to match tissue types. People can donate organs and tissues whilst they are alive, but today we’re mainly going to discuss organ donation after death.
Due to a shortage of suitably matched donors, Black, Asian and minority ethnic patients often have to wait significantly longer for a successful match than white patients. If more people with these ethnic backgrounds donated their organs after death, or as a living donor, then transplant times would reduce.
Most donated organs come from people who have severe brain injury in which really important parts of the brain that are vital to maintain life are damaged. These patients receive treatment on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. When these areas of the brain become damaged, the chance of survival is very low and the patients are essentially kept alive by machines.
When all efforts to save the patient have failed, death is certified by a doctor who is completely independent of the transplant team. It is important to remember that the patient is the priority of the doctors. NHS staff are committed to saving lives; they do everything in their power to avoid the death of patients.
A panel of doctors have to declare the deceased as brain dead before the organs can be taken out. People who die of natural causes are usually not able to donate, because the donor’s heart must be beating recently for the organs to remain alive and viable for transplantation.
Organs that can be donated by people who have died include the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas, and small bowel. Tissues such as skin, bone, heart valves and corneas also can be used to help others. One donor can help save up to 50 lives. During organ donation, the donor is kept alive by a ventilator, which their family may choose to remove. When organs are removed by the medical team, the body remains as intact as possible. The removal of organs is carried out with the greatest care and respect. The family can see the body afterwards and staff can contact the religious leader if the family wishes.
There is no age limit for organ donation. The oldest donor was 92 years old in the USA, in May 2020. There are a few certain conditions that will limit patients from donating, but the doctors will be aware of this at the time of donation. You can find out more information on the NHS website.
England has an opt-out system. This means that all adults in England have agreed to potentially become an organ donor when they die and can choose to opt-out if they wish. However, just because you’re on the register it doesn’t mean that when you die your organs will automatically be donated. At the time of death, the family is always involved in the decision and their consent is still needed in order for organs to be donated. It is therefore really important that you discuss the possibility of organ donation with your family beforehand, so that they are informed of what happens and are aware that this is a possibility.
At the time of death, the family will likely be processing a lot of thoughts and there is only a short window in which to donate, so a conversation beforehand is of utmost importance. It is a difficult and emotional conversation to have but will potentially save many lives. You can find out more information on the NHS website and by talking to your doctor.
Sikh teachings about organ donation
The Sikh philosophy and teachings place great emphasis on the importance of giving and putting others before oneself.
Importance of service
ਮੁਇਆ ਗੰਢ ਨੇਕੀ ਸਤੁ ਹੋਇ। p 143 Guru Granth Sahib (heron inward GGS)
The dead sustains their bond with the living through virtuous deeds
The true servants of God are those who serve Him through helping others.
There is only one certainty that physical life comes to end. Life is grounded in death. Death is the natural progression of life.
Physical death for everyone
Physical death is certainty
We all are in queue waiting for death
The death is the return of the basic elements to their origins.
Like water in the water of the sea and the wave in the stream, I shall merge with God. Meeting with the supreme soul, my soul shall become impartial like the air.
The Sikh faith stresses the importance of performing noble deeds. There are many examples of Sikhs doing selfless service such as giving free food, groceries, and oxygen to the victims of coronavirus COVID-19.
‘It is entirely consistent with the spirit of service that we consider donating organs after death to give life and hope to others. In my family we all are for donating organs after death and would encourage others to do so.’ Right Honourable the Lord Singh of Wimbledon CBE, Director Network of Sikh Organisations, UK
Donating one’s organ to another so that the person may live is one of the greatest gifts and ultimate seva to humankind.
Seva or selfless service is at the core of being a Sikh: to give without seeking reward or recognition and know that all seva is known to and appreciated by the Eternal. Seva can also be donation of one’s organ to another. There are no taboos attached to organ donation in Sikhi nor is there a requirement that a body should have all its organs intact at or after death. Physical body is only a vassal in its journey, left behind and dissolved into elements.
‘One of Sikhism’s most basic messages-as advocated by Guru Nanak is for a human being to be of service to humanity. I believe every Sikh who has understood and inculcated this aspect of spirituality would consider his or her greatest honour to be of use to another human being in death. It certainly would be for me.’ Says Sikh scholar and writer, Dr Karminder Singh.
I end with the wisdom of our Guru, the Guru Granth Sahib:
On the inference members of the House of Lords are indifferent to the plight of Jagtar Singh Johal
(above) screenshot from Reprieve’s website:
Question from Lord Singh (Director NSO) to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Asked 13 November 2017
Jagtar Singh Johal
‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of India concerning the arrest of UK citizen Jagtar Singh Johal; and what response, if any, they have received.’
‘The British High Commission has raised this case with the Indian authorities. Following high level lobbying, consular staff visited Mr Johal on 16th November. The Rt Hon Field, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific met with Mr Johal’s MP and brother on 27 November. We will continue to raise this case with the authorities to ensure we have regular and full consular access.’
Answered 27 November 2017, By Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative, Life peer)
Lord Singh and other crossbenchers working with Reprieve
In February this year Reprieve got in touch with Lord Singh and other peers to request support for a letter to the Foreign Secretary raising the alarm about India’s treatment of Jagtar Singh Johal. Lord Singh and some of his fellow crossbenchers signed the letter and are continuing to work with Reprieve and others moving forwards.
Difficulty to Mr Johal with advocacy from the Sikh Federation UK
The Sikh Federation UK is the successor group to a formerly banned extremist organisation. It does not help Mr Johal to have them speaking for him.
The Sikh community with the support of the DfE have made tremendous efforts to establish their local faith schools over the last three decades. Most of the schools are thriving and outcomes are high however when a school seriously underperforms and is threatened for academisation or re-brokerage, the issues can rapidly become highly sensitive for the local community. In some cases, this is due to the increasingly complex religious sectarian issues within the Sikh community. The NSO have been involved in tackling such situations which can lead to tensions between the DfE and the Sikh community which in some cases have led to complex, lengthy and costly legal challenges.
History has shown that when Sikh faith schools have underperformed, the reasons can be varied and complex. Local political barriers can sometimes prevent rapid school improvement support and system leadership to be provided to standalone academies or in some cases to schools within a multi-academy trust.
The NSO have introduced a range of school improvement services to help support rapid school intervention and support to enable the school to recover and at the same time provide confidence to the regulators that academisation or re-brokerage can be avoided.
Our school improvement services are provided by individuals that work closely with the NSO and are often experienced headteachers who are or have run outstanding schools as well as field experts in specialised areas such governance, safeguarding, curriculum and SEND provision. The NSO will provide these school improvement partners directly to schools who will pay them for the support. The amount of intervention will depend on the needs of the school and vary from a few days per term to longer in some cases.
Once again Sikhs throughout the world are celebrating the festival of Vaisakhi, one of the most important days in the Sikh calendar. Vaisakhi is a tale of brave martyrdom followed by the challenge of new beginnings.
The story of Vaisakhi begins with the martyrdom in Delhi of Guru Teg Bahadur, 9th Guru of the Sikhs, whose 400th birth anniversary we are celebrating this month. The Guru, who disagreed with many aspects of Hindu teachings was publicly beheaded by the Mughal rulers for trying to protect the Hindu community’s right to freedom of belief and worship. The Mughal emperor then challenged the Sikhs who at that time, had no distinguishing appearance, to claim their master’s body. But in the event no one came forward. The Guru’s young son Gobind now became Guru, and as he grew into manhood, he constantly stressed that Sikhs should always be ready to stand up for their beliefs, however difficult the circumstances. Then he decided to put the community to the test.
On Vaisakhi day three centuries ago, as crowds were celebrating the gathering of the spring harvest, the Guru, sword in hand, asked for anyone willing to give his life for his faith, to come forward. A brave Sikh stepped forward and accompanied the Guru into a tent. To everyone’s dismay, the Guru then emerged alone, his sword apparently covered with blood, and asked for a second volunteer. After five Sikhs had come forward, the Guru again emerged from the tent. To everyone’s joy he was now followed by all five Sikhs who were clearly alive and well and dressed in turbans and other symbols that have ever since formed a uniform or badge of Sikh identity.
The Guru was clearly overjoyed. The infant Sikh community had proved its courage and he was now confident that it could now continue to flourish, if it remained true to the teachings of our Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib, while being on its guard against those who wish to distort or destroy the independence of Sikh teachings.
We have survived many direct challenges before. Today the threat is from India’s PM, Narendra Modi, a lifetime follower of the RSS agenda to turn India into a Hindu State. Disguised as praise for Sikh teachings, and aimed at absorbing Sikh teachings into Hinduism, it poses an insidious threat. The clue is in the PMs own words.
He writes – “our Sikh Guru tradition is a philosophy of life in itself.”
What does an extremist Hindu leader of a supposedly secular country that has passed discriminatory laws against Muslims, mean by ‘our’ Sikh Guru?
Guru Arjan emphasised independent Sikh identity when he wrote:
‘I neither keep the Hindu fast; nor the Muslim Ramadan. I serve the one God who is both Allah and Ram.’
The Guru taught that Sikhism cannot be caged in Hinduism or any other belief system. On this anniversary of Vaisakhi, we should pledge ourselves to resist both threats and blandishments; and live and promote Sikh teachings of equality, tolerance, and freedom of belief in a world that has lost its ethical direction.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Director, Network of Sikh Organisations
The Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the controversial Hate Crime Bill yesterday despite a groundswell of opposition from civil society groups including the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO).
The NSO joined the efforts of the campaign group Free to Disagree last year, because we realised proposals in the Bill would have a significant impact on civil liberties and a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. We worked with our allies in playing a major part in pushing back against controversial elements of the Bill, with some success, and gave both oral and written evidence to the Scottish Justice Committee.
The NSO lobbied alongside the National Secular Society, Catholic Church, the Free Church of Scotland and The Humanists Society to secure an amendment to extend free speech for discussion of religion and belief. Expressions of ‘antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult’ towards religion are now protected, whereas prior to this only, ‘criticism and discussion’ was safeguarded when it came to matters of religion. This is more in line with parallel legislation in England & Wales and allows for more robust discussion, without fear of investigation or censorship.
Notably, the original Bill was drafted without including the need for ‘intent’ to bring a conviction, and the threshold was merely ‘stirring of hatred’ was ‘likely’ to occur – something that would have put actors, or those working in theatrical arts (amongst others) in real difficulty. Lobbying efforts succeeded and the ‘intent’ modification is included in the legislation.
Our Deputy-Director who led on our campaigning, was quoted on BBC Politics Live and in the stage three debate yesterday in Holyrood by the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Justice Liam Kerr MSP, who said:
‘Let me finish with a quote from Hardeep Singh, ‘for ordinary people there will be a serious ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. MSPs must therefore put free speech first when making the decisive vote on this ill-conceived legislation. The only way to do that is to vote against it. At decision time tonight presiding officer, the Scottish Conservatives will do just that’.’
As we pointed out in evidence to the Justice Committee, the Hate Crime Bill puts women who want to discuss women’s rights and transgender issues in real difficulty, as there is not enough free speech protection for them. It also does not protect conversations in the privacy of one’s home, as there is no dwelling defence – something that is included in legislation in England & Wales. There is now a risk conversations around the dinner table could be investigated.
Hardeep Singh said: ‘The Bill is deeply flawed and will no doubt be used by people to silence or attempt to criminalise critics. It may well lead to a culture of vexatious complaints and heralds a very dark moment for free speech in Scotland. Of course, we are disappointed it has passed, but are grateful to have worked with brave and principled individuals in the Free to Disagree campaign. Thanks to these joint efforts, there have been some important amendments which have helped improve the legislation during its passage.’
Over the last few weeks, the NSO has worked tirelessly with Cllr. Gurch Singh who set up a UK government and parliament petition (e-petition 563473)[i] on the farmers’ protest in India, which received over 115,000 signatories. The petition was debated in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday and we are pleased to see our efforts come to fruition. Of the 19 speakers, 17 spoke in favour of the farmers’ and many of them had been briefed by our Director, Lord Singh of Wimbledon and other members of the NSO. This included the likes of Martyn Day MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, who during the debate said:
‘As the world’s largest democracy and a key regional player, India has a pivotal role to play on the world stage. That is why it is vital that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary impress on our Indian partners our joint convictions on free speech and the right to protest.’
The NSO was also in correspondence with Sir Keir Starmer’s office, and they responded positively, which resulted in the important contribution of Stephen Kinnock MP. He said: ‘Let me stress in absolute terms that the Labour Front Bench stands firmly behind the rights of Indian farmers to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.’[ii]
We’d like to thank our network of supporters and activists who all took the trouble to contact their local MPs to urge them to contribute to this important debate and stand up for the farmers’ fundamental right to protest. As a result of their efforts and working in collaboration with us, many MPs who would have otherwise not attended – contributed positively in favour of the farmers. The debate sets a precedent and sends an important message to the Modi government. That is – we the diaspora community will continue to stand up for the human rights of the Indian farmers’, whilst also supporting the freedom of expression of the press in India.
Whilst we are pleased that solidarity was shown with the farmers’ cause in the UK Parliament, much more needs to be done and we cannot rest on our laurels.
Reflecting on the debate and looking forwards our Director Lord Singh said, ‘The success of the debate is seen in the angry reaction of the Indian government in criticising the UK Parliament for daring to shine a spotlight on the abuse of democratic norms by the Modi government. We will continue to speak up for the marginalised in India and elsewhere’.
JUSTICE COMMITTEE HATE CRIME AND PUBLIC ORDER (SCOTLAND) BILL
SUPPLEMENTARY SUBMISSION FROM NETWORK OF SIKH ORGANISATIONS
The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no.1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
This submission is supplementary to our original REF: J/S5/20/HC/1756 dated 17th September 2020 and our 2nd submission dated 16th November 2020 REF: J/S5/20/HC/1771, which followed the oral hearing on 10th November 2020 in which our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh gave evidence to the Justice Committee alongside several other organisations. This 3rd submission is in response to consideration of options tabled for a new overarching free speech clause, which has been proposed by the Secretary for Justice.
1.1Previously agreed clause for protecting free speech when it comes to matters of religion and belief
We are surprised that only two of the options offered for review as a ‘catch all’ free speech provision by the Secretary for Justice, include an already agreed amendment when it comes to protecting free speech when discussing matters of religion and belief. This was approved unanimously by the committee last week and something we raised along with others in oral evidence to the Justice Committee, and in our previous written submissions. The new and controversial ‘stirring up hatred’ offences must include free speech clauses to protect speech beyond merely ‘criticism’ and ‘discussion’ of religion. The previously agreed amendment would have provided greater protection to expressions of ‘antipathy’, ‘ridicule’, ‘dislike’ or ‘insult’ of religion or belief and brought this free speech protection (in the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill) in line with an equivalent clause in section 29J of the Religious Hatred Act 2006[i] (England & Wales).
During the oral evidence session on 10th November 2020 Anthony Horan Director, Catholic Parliamentary Office of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, Neil Barber, spokesperson for Scotland, National Secular Society (NSS) , Kieran Turner, Public Policy Officer, Scotland, Evangelical Alliance, and our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh all supported the echoing of freedom of speech provisions in English law, when it comes to religion and belief.[ii] This was later agreed as an amendment by the committee. It is frankly remarkable how this now appears to have been rescinded in two of, ‘four options for freedom of expression provision.’[iii] We are not alone in our astonishment and disappointment at this development – our allies in the Free to Disagree Campaign, the NSS have rightly described this development as ‘perplexing and farcical.’[iv]
1.2 More time is required to consider the ‘catch all’ free speech clauses
We are alarmed by the speed in which this critical part of the public consultation is now being conducted. Our Deputy-Director was a signatory to a letter calling for deferring scrutiny of the draft stirring up hatred offences proposals until after the May election.[v] This stage of the public consultation was announced on 18th February 2021, and evidence in response to the ‘catch all’ free speech provision has been given the deadline of 10:00 Monday 22nd February 2021. This is only two working days and simply not sufficient notice to provide these ‘catch all’ free speech clauses the attention they deserve. There are also questions as to why the free speech defence for religion and belief (in two of the proposed provisions) which mirrors English law, has not been expanded to other protected characteristics in which only ‘discussion or criticism’ is protected. This not only creates a clear hierarchy of free speech defences but puts those who for example, want to air strong opinions on transgender issues/women’s rights in serious difficulty if this legislation is enacted.
1.3Parliamentary scrutiny and procedure on previously agreed free speech clause for religion and belief
We would also like to understand the mechanism and process by which the previously agreed free speech clause for religion and belief, has essentially been shelved in all but two of the proposed ‘catch all’ clauses. It would indeed be helpful if an explanation is provided by the Secretary for Justice during the oral evidence session scheduled at 14:30 on 22nd February 2021.
NSO submission to APPG for the Pakistani Minorities inquiry into Abduction, Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages of Religious Minority Girls and Women in Pakistan
The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no.1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
For the sake of brevity and convenience, we have used headings in the APPG briefing document. We are grateful to former councillor/detective Gurpal Virdi for his input.
Human Rights Organisation/NGOs/Faith and non-faith based groups, Experts
i. Name and organisation? What is the nature of your work on the topic? Do you work with the victims and their families? How many victims or their families do you work with? What assistance do you provide?
Over the last few years, the NSO has followed cases of forced conversion and written about the forced marriage and abuse of religious minority girls and women in Pakistan. This is an issue that has an impact on all non-Muslim minority girls in Pakistan – predominantly Hindu and Christian girls, but it has also impacted the minority Sikh community too. One of the most high-profile cases in recent years has been the case of Jagjit Kaur.[i] She was alleged to be kidnapped at gunpoint from her home in Nankana Sahib (Lahore), converted (given the Muslim name Ayesha) and married to a Muslim boy.[ii]
In many cases the victim’s family face legal challenges, intimidation and according to Professor Javaid Rehman from Brunel University, ‘local authorities, especially police, particularly in the Punjab province, are often accused of being complicit in these cases by failing to properly investigate reported cases or prosecute offenders’.[iii] Legal petitions filed in court from the family members of the accused boy/men, often follow a similar pattern with statements alleging the girl(s) converted and married of their free will. This makes it difficult, if not impossible for the victim families to get access to justice through the courts. Many come from poor backgrounds, and do not have the necessary resources to defend their rights.
According to the academic research on this matter, we understand that approximately 1,000 women and girls from religious minorities are abducted, forcibly converted to Islam, and then married off to their abductors every year in Pakistan.[iv] Our Director Lord Singh of Wimbledon has raised the treatment of minorities in debates in the House of Lords. In a debate on 2nd July 2019 ‘Pakistan: Aid programmes and Human Rights’ – our Director said:
‘Minorities are frequently allocated menial tasks such as the cleaning of public latrines. Homes of minorities are frequently attacked and women and girls kidnapped and converted or sold into slavery. I have at times questioned the appropriateness of Pakistan, with its ill treatment of minorities, still being a member of the Commonwealth, a club of countries with historic ties to Britain. Members are required to abide by the Commonwealth charter, with core values of opposition to, “all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.’[v]
ii. What, in your opinion, are the weaknesses and limitations of the existing laws?
The APPG briefing paper outlines the existing laws including the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 of Pakistan, and in Sindh – the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014. It says, ‘In another major province, Punjab, the Punjab Marriage Restraint Act 2015 kept the legal age of marriage at 16 years. In 2018, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology announced that a nikah (Islamic marriage) can be performed at any age but the couple can only live together after the age of 18.’ The difficulty here is changes to Pakistan’s law designed to safeguard minors and criminalise those that marry underage boys or girls, although well-meaning conflict with some interpretations of sharia being propagated by influential preachers and Islamic organisations.
Although we submit this isn’t limited to the issue of forced marriage and conversion of minority faith girls only, it has been seen most prominently with the backlash against Pakistan’s Supreme Court decision in the Asia Bibi blasphemy case. Both Bibi and the Supreme Court justices’ received death threats because of the decision to free her.[vi] The courts make important rulings, and some influential clerics push back. The late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party (whose family was given condolences when he died by Imran Khan),[vii] was a pro-blasphemy law campaigner.
He can be seen in footage giving a speech in which he says keeping relationships with ‘kaffirs’ (a derogatory term), or non-Muslims should be treated like one’s relationship with a toilet.[viii] The dissemination of this kind of doctrinally motivated hatred against non-Muslims by pro-blasphemy clerics in Pakistan serves to incite hatred against non-Muslims and dehumanises them. Whilst laws designed to safeguard against child marriage are indeed a welcome step, do they make a difference in real terms with this backdrop? We believe the problem is compounded because there appears to be little done to address hate speech against non-Muslims. The propagation of this hatred sows the seeds of prejudice, and facilitates the ongoing issue of abduction, forced conversions, and forced marriages of religious minority girls/women in Pakistan.
iii. What, in your opinion, is the problem with implementation of the existing laws that should have protected the victims?
The APPG for the Pakistani minorities 2019 report Religious Minorities of Pakistan: Report of a Parliamentary visit (27 September 2018 – 3 October 2018), cites a report produced by the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2018):
‘the police will often either refuse to record an [First information Report] FIR or falsify the information recorded on the FIR, thus denying the families involved the chance to take their case and complaints any further. The lack of an FIR or the misrepresentation of information means that the family are unable to seek further justice in law courts, as an FIR is the vital first stage in the Criminal Procedure Code. Police are also often lethargic in attempting to recover a girl who has been abducted, thus allowing the conversion and marriage to take place. Both the lower courts and the higher courts of Pakistan have displayed bias and a lack of adherence to proper procedures in cases that involve accusations of forced marriage and forced conversions [and in such cases] the judiciary is often subjected to external influences, such as fear of reprisal and violence from extremist elements.’[ix]
We believe this sums up the plight for minorities in Pakistani, in their inability to obtain justice through the legal system. Unless the status quo is changed both in the way the police and judiciary deal with such cases, the ill treatment of minorities will continue unabated. The flaws in the existing system, along with the bias in favour of the accused abductors, is likely to not only further embolden perpetrators, but gives them the reassurance they need that they will be granted impunity for their actions.
iv. How, in your opinion, could the Federal and Provincial Governments improve the laws to eliminate the issue of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages?
We believe the way to tackle this is two-prong, looking at both shifting societal attitudes, as well as training and education for officials. Firstly, there must be meaningful effort to reduce societal hatred and hostility towards non-Muslims. Second there must be training for officials to highlight their obligations when it comes to the rights of non-Muslim children.
Rather than reinventing the wheel, there have already been some meaningful recommendations put forward for the attention of the Pakistani authorities by this very APPG in their 2019 report. Some examples which would encourage better treatment of minorities in Pakistan:
ban all discriminatory employment advertisements reserving low-paid or menial
jobs for non-Muslims only and introduce financial penalties for breaching the
More broadly speaking there should be the requirement of mandatory training programmes for the police, social workers, the judiciary on the rights of children and their responsibility to safeguard those rights which are enshrined under Pakistan’s constitution and the law, moreover, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and within international human rights law.
vii. What, in your opinion, are the effects of such abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages on a) the victims and b) their families?
Although we have not conducted any direct victim assessments, it is clear the impact of these heinous crimes is severe for the victim and their families. Those who try to fight back through the legal system often face intimidation and threats. The family of Jagjit Kaur were reportedly threatened.[xiii] It is difficult for us to fathom the upheaval and chaos the families and victims go through. Tweeting about the case of Simron Kumari, Veengas a Sindh based journalist and founder of The Rise News, writes, ‘parents have been raising voice for their daughter since 2019. Now, Simron Kumari who was abducted and converted to Islam. Family seeks help but who will listen to their anguish. You cannot do justice to mothers. I request you (sic) that if you have heart then feel their sorrow.’[xiv] In the same thread she writes, ‘Unfortunately, Urdu Elite Media don’t cover Forced conversions issues as they should have covered. Majority of minor girls being abducted & converted to Islam.’[xv] According to another report, a father of two Hindu girls kidnapped in Sindh, protested outside a police station and said, ‘You can kill me. I will never tolerate this. My daughters have been abducted—I had patience.’[xvi]
ix. How can the Home Office be persuaded that the presumption in any such victims case, if applying for asylum in the UK, should be that they have been persecuted for their faith?
Country policy and information notes on Pakistan, which are published by the Home Office should be updated to include information about the persecution of minority faiths in Pakistan on the issue of abduction, forced conversions, and forced marriages. There should be an understanding of the issue at hand amongst Home Office staff, not least immigration officials – so they can make the appropriate assessments for asylum applications.